09 Feb THE OXFORD ORATORY
The Catholic Church of Saint Aloysius
By Donna Sue Berry
That the Catholic Church thinks in centuries is illustrated by the unlikely tale of the founding of the Oratory in the famed university town of Oxford, England. Our story begins in Rome in the sixteenth century, when St. Philip Neri created his ‘Oratory,’ a community where the bond between its members was not a formal canonical vow, but a bond of charity. His ideal was one in which the members of the Oratory would strive to live community life and priestly service in a spirit of prayer wherein obedience is offered out of fraternal love.
Three hundred years later in England, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman had a dream, too. It was for a congregation of the Oratory in Oxford, where he had been a student and professor for much of his life. A hundred years later, Newman’s wish was fulfilled in 1990 when the parish church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga was entrusted to the Fathers of the Oratory. St. Aloysius Catholic Church had been built in 1875 and served by Jesuit Fathers, successors of those who kept the Catholic Faith alive in Oxford during the years of persecution.
By 1993, the numbers in the community had increased such that the Oxford Oratory was formally established as an independent house. Today, this amazing parish’s Masses are filled with ardent Catholics and converts from all over the world. The Oratory’s Provost and Pastor, Daniel Seward, recently commented on the situation there to Regina Magazine’s Donna Sue Berry.
HIGH ALTAR AT THE OXFORD ORATORY with a reredos of Saints.
Fr. Seward, Can you tell us about the Fathers and Brothers of the Oratory? Most of us are more familiar with religious orders, but do not have a clear understanding of the Oratorian vocation. Do you have a Superior and rules?
St Philip Neri founded the Congregation of the Oratory in Rome in 1575 as a community of priests, living in community with a Rule, but without vows. That means that we are ‘secular’ priests, not a religious order, but that we have a community structure and discipline. When he is clothed as an Oratorian, the new member states his intention to remain until death. We have a saying, “A son of St Philip is known only on his deathbed” because it is only then that we can know that we have persevered.
Normally an Oratorian would expect to stay in the same house for the whole of his life and every house is completely independent. We are subject not to the diocesan bishop but directly to the Holy See. The Superior is called the Provost and is elected for three years at a time. In the house he is known simply as “The Father”.
How many live in Community? Is there a period of discernment and novitiate?
We have at present eight members of the community, two of whom are at our new foundation in York. The time of the novitiate lasts for three years, after which a man becomes a triennial Father. After a further three years he is able to vote in the General Congregation, which decides all the business of the Congregation.
SANCTUARY CEILING: Latin is obviously part of the Church’s heritage, and in a city like Oxford with people coming from all over the world, it expresses the universality of the Church.
I understand that Mass is celebrated in both English and Latin, in the Ordinary form. Have you found more interest in Latin in the last few years?
At the Oxford Oratory we have celebrations in the Ordinary Form, both in English and Latin, and also in the Extraordinary Form. It has always been a charism of the Oratory to celebrate the sacred liturgy with great reverence and devotion. It has been our experience that this is always a way to draw people to God – just as St Philip used music, art and beauty to encourage people to love God in the sixteenth century. Latin is obviously part of the Church’s heritage, and in a city like Oxford with people coming from all over the world, it expresses the universality of the Church.
CONFESSIONAL DOORS, OXFORD ORATORY: ‘Yes, there are figures from the University who have become Catholics, and indeed any young person who practices the Faith today has made a very definite decision to do so.’
Have you had people return to the Faith because of the Latin? Is the congregation growing as we are seeing in other churches that have begun to use Latin?
Many Catholics, especially the young, now come to Latin and the solemn celebration of the liturgy for the first time, and they identify it as something which raises them above the level of the everyday. Nobody is going to be attracted if the Church adapts herself to contemporary culture – we have to offer them something supernatural, something divine.
SAINTS AT OXFORD: ‘Many Catholics, especially the young, now come to Latin and the solemn celebration of the liturgy for the first time, and they identify it as something which raises them above the level of the everyday.’
I hear there are quite a few intellectual types converting to Catholicism at the Oratory. Can you tell me if this is true, and has there been an increase in interest in the faith overall with an increase in conversions?
Those who come to Mass here come from a huge variety of backgrounds, but obviously being in a University city it is important to show that the Faith has an intellectual rigour and consistency. Oxford is fortunate in having many different religious orders present – Dominicans, Benedictines, Jesuits, Franciscans, Salesians and Carmelites. All this makes us able to show that the Church is alive. This is so important in Oxford, which is increasingly a very secular environment. So yes, there are figures from the University who have become Catholics, and indeed any young person who practices the Faith today has made a very definite decision to do so.
Do you have any recusant families who remained loyal to Rome and did not attend the Church of England?
They tend to be more in rural areas, associated with old Catholic families – such as the Eystons at East Hendred and Mapledurham or the Stonors at Stonor Park,
What about English Catholics with Irish backgrounds whose families came over during the famine?
In the past, those of Irish descent made up the bulk of the Catholic Church in England. Today, you are just as likely to find Catholics of Polish, Filipino or other origins.
Do you find that you have a lot of International students coming to the Oratory for Mass?
Yes – and we have a lot of visiting American students, who are often impressive in their fervour and devotion.
THE RELIC CHAPEL – DEDICATED TO OUR LADY OF OXFORD. The 19th century original collection includes some extraordinary autograph letters of saints, including St Ignatius Loyola and St Catherine of Siena.
England has such a rich history of Catholic martyrs; does there seem to be more of a keen interest in these Saints?
In recent years there have been memorials and processions organized in Oxford to the large number of martyrs from this city – people like St Edmund Campion, St Nicholas Owen, Blessed Humphrey Pritchard and many others. They are a reminder to us that we are not the first generation to have to proclaim the Gospel in a hostile culture!
Tell us about the Oratory Church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. How many side chapels does it have? Are Masses said in them? I have read that the Our Lady of Oxford Chapel used to be called the Relic Chapel, why is that?
Masses are regularly celebrated at all our altars. There is the Sacred Heart Chapel, the Lady Chapel, St Philip’s Chapel and the Relic Chapel – dedicated to Our Lady of Oxford. The relics come from many sources, but the original collection was formed by Hartwell de la Garde Grissell in the nineteenth century and includes some extraordinary autograph letters of saints, including St Ignatius Loyola and St Catherine of Siena.
IN RECENT YEARS MEMORIALS AND PROCESSIONS HAVE HONORED THE OXFORD MARTYRS such as St Edmund Campion, St Nicholas Owen, Blessed Humphrey Pritchard and many others, a reminder to Catholics that we are not the first generation to have to proclaim the Gospel in a hostile culture.
Do you have a chapel that is dedicated to Blessed John Henry Newman?
We have a shrine to Blessed John Henry in the church, which was created at the time of his beatification. In the long term we hope to build a separate chapel in his honour – but there is a lot of money to raise before that!
What are you raising funds for?
The Oxford Oratory’s Reaffirmation & Renewal Campaign began in 2007. Its aim is to raise £5 million in order to carry out extensive building work, renovation on the church and its associated buildings. Many renovations have already been completed with many more projects left to do.
To find out more:
The Oxford Oratory
Catholic Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga
25 Woodstock Road Oxford Ox2 6HA
Telephone: (01865) 315800
A STATUE OF JESUS AS THE GOOD SHEPHERD INSTALLED IN 2005, to replace one of St Aloysius that had been smashed by vandals.
IN 2010, AN ALTAR WAS BUILT TO BLESSED JOHN HENRY NEWMAN to coincide with his beatification by Pope Benedict XVI. The shrine was unveiled and blessed by the Archbishop of Birmingham, the Very Rev Bernard Longley, two days after the beatification.